Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wine and Terroir, or, There is an American Wine Industry Outside California

I've become wine-obsessed lately. This is in part due to the fact that I'm living in a new house with a peaceful and green backyard patiently waiting for me to lay in my hammock with a good book and a glass of great wine, and partly due to the fine folks at Bonny Doon Vineyard. It was they who introduced me to the concept of "terroir" - a fancy French term that means that the best wines (and food) should exhibit a sense of place; should have some clues in the fragrance and taste as to where they came from. I found this concept instantly fascinating - of the wines I've drunk so far in my short wine-tasting life, my favorites invariably came from small to medium (and sometimes even large) producers working with varietals that are not so well known, but often are particularly suited to their growing site. Not that I haven't enjoyed a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, but it is a much different experience than, say, the Bonny Doon Barbera/Freisa Amarone, a wonderful, complex red produced in Bonny Doon's biodynamic Ca'Del Solo Vineyard, or even the much larger production Ironstone Obsession Symphony, a semi-sweet but extremely well-balanced white produced with Symphony grapes grown in the Central Valley (where the Symphony grape thrives in the heat).

Of course, this new-found obsession with wine and terroir returned to a place most of my obsessions do: the Midwest - especially Wisconsin. And lo and behold - yes Virginia, there is a grape wine industry outside of California.

In fact, the wine industry in the middle of the country used to be HUGE - with Missouri and Virginia having some of the largest vineyards in the country. Of course, then came prohibition, and perhaps because those states were ever so much closer to the center of government the vineyards were ripped out en masse and the wine industry east of the Sierra died out.

Prohibition didn't last forever tho, and now vineyards and wineries are popping up everywhere. While perhaps not as polished and frankly snooty as their California cousins, the small (and not so small) wineries being started in the Midwest and East Coast are fascinating.

In Wisconsin places like Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery are using varietals uniquely suited to Northern growing climates like Frontenac and Foch to create wines that are winning rave reviews - and I'm hoping a distinct sense of place (I can't see growing Cabernet in Wisconsin giving any kind of sense of place - grapes need to be suited to the climate, and beyond that the unique growing site). I've got a couple of bottles of the Orchard Country's Audrey Grace on order - and I'll let you know if it indeed has a uniquely Door County Wisconsin Terroir - I'm hoping for some cherry and a little bit of the Lake Michigan minerals. They should be arriving sometime in the next couple of weeks - I ordered them last weekend - and I'll let you know how it goes.

Another wine that I'm excited to try in the near future grows better slightly further south - the Norton or Cynthiana varietal. Its the only native (or part native - this is a good history of the grape) grape that's considered to have the right characteristics to make a really fine table wine. Being a native grape in my eyes gives it a great terroir advantage - it has evolved to work in North America, and its flavor will be truly unique to this continent. I'm still not sure which Norton variety I want to try - I'd definitely like to go with one that is either small family farmed (not so much of a problem since factory wine-making hasn't reached too far east yet), and/or organically raised (or even biodynamic, but I don't think that biodynamics has reached far out of the west coast yet.)

My overall point here is - if you live outside CA, try looking into locally produced grape wines (and hey, fruit and honey wines can be fun too, if only for dessert!). They might surprise you with their quality, inexpensiveness, and perhaps even with their terroir. And if you live in California - get your nose out of the air and into some glasses filled with wines from outside Napa/Sonoma.

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